It's common knowledge that The Self-Empowered Woman blog tries to introduce readers to a wide variety of female achievers. And so far we've highlighted women from scores of countries, backgrounds and eras. But today's subject, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye (aka Private Frank Thompson), is one of the most amazing women I've had the privilege to research. Over 400 women served in the Civil War as soldiers, but the story I'm about to share is by far the most amazing.
Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in December 1841. Her hot-tempered, abusive father resented the fact that she had not been a son, and treated her badly (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He wanted her to enter an arranged marriage with a man she didn't like, so she ran away from home at age 15 (14: Selective Disassociation).
For two years she lived on her own as a single woman, but decided that life would be easier if she disguised herself as a man, so she cut her hair, bought a man's suit, and took the name Franklin (Frank) Thompson. In her new identity, she sold Bibles in both Canada and (eventually) in Michigan.
Even though she was not an American, she was deeply affected by the growing tensions between the North and the South. While she was living in Flint, Michigan the first call for Union enlistment went out, and she tried to enlist. It took her four tries, but she finally got sworn in as a member of the Union Army (back then there was no medical examination, only questions). So on April 25, 1861, "Frank Thompson" became a male nurse in Company F, the Flint Union Greys of the Second Michigan Infantry Volunteers (8: Turning No into Yes).
Edmonds later wrote about her war-time experiences in the memoir (pictured above) "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army." As a soldier, her duties ranged from being a male nurse, burying the dead, regimental Postmaster, mail carrier and spy. Perhaps her most daring adventures centered when she was sent South to serve as a spy with General McClellan's campaign in Virginia. She was so determined to be accepted that she carefully studied every available piece of information on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities (10: The Critic Within).
In order to create a persona that would fool the Confederates, she decided to disguise herself as a black man, and used silver nitrate to darken her skin, as well as a minstrel wig to change her hair. She gave herself the name "Cuff," and worked in the kitchen where she learned valuable information about the morale of the troops, the size of the army, and the weapons that were available. She learned that the Confederate Army was using "Quaker Guns," which were merely logs that had been painted black to look like cannons from a distance. She escaped and returned to the Union Troops where she was able to give all this information to General McClellan in person (11: Risk Addition).
Two months later, when she was again ordered to infiltrate the Confederate Army she decided to be a fat, Irish peddler woman named Bridget O'Shea. This time she returned to the Union camp on a beautiful Confederate horse, but because she had been wounded in the arm she barely escaped the Rebel Troops that were chasing her.
In August, 1862, Emma returned to the South as a black mammy, with darkened skin and a bandanna to cover her hair. She worked as a laundress in the camp, and while cleaning an officer's coat important, official papers fell out of a pocket. Emma grabbed them, and took them back to General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.
All in all, Emma had eleven successful spy missions while serving in the Union Army. When she was transferred to serve with General Grant (before the battle of Vicksburg), her long hours in the military hospital took a toll and she became ill with Malaria. Rather than blow her cover as "Frank Thompson," she returned to female attire and entered a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois. After recovering, she traveled to Washington and worked as a female nurse until the end of the war because "Private Frank Thompson" had been listed as a deserter.
After the war, her memoirs became very popular, and she donated all of the profits to the U.S. Relief Fund. On July 5, 1884, a special Act of Congress her an Honorable Discharge from the Army, plus a bonus and a veterans pension of $12 a month. Helping the war effort truly was Edmonds' passion, and she wrote "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my success." (8: Magnificent Obsession).
Emma Edmonds died on September 5, 1898 at age 57, and is the only female member of the organization formed after the Civil War by Union Veterans - The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). She was buried in Houston, Texas, with a limestone marker that says "Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse."
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